Mt. Katahdin 1/14-1/18
Ever since I first opened my copy of Lou Dawson’s Wild Snow I’ve wanted to ski Mt. Katahdin. The tallest mountain in Maine, Katahdin has alpine terrain, an imposingly sharp, rocky ridgeline, and, yes, a 15-mile approach. The scale, the views, and the remoteness are all reminiscent of a peak out west, not some sleepy Appalachian hill. The difficulty of access is part of the allure, in the sense that backcountry skiing is about getting away from the daily grind and into the wilderness.
Two years ago I almost got the chance to ski Katahdin. The Dartmouth Outing Club runs a trip every year, and although the focus of this trip is generally just a glorified snowshoe/winter camping trip for a remote summit, I gamely loaded up my Verdicts and Freerides alongside the Nordic skis others were using for the approach. Unfortunately, a combination of weather and bad avalanche conditions prohibited skiing anything other than a few low-angle tree shots. With massive blisters from 30 miles of skinning towing a heavy sled and memories of -30 F nights, I left that trip with no immediate ambitions to go back.
Fast forward to two months ago. As a senior at Dartmouth who has gotten more than my fair share of outing club money to go on trips over the past three years, I decided to help lead this year’s Katahdin trip. My co-leader, Noah, is one of my regular ski buddies, and from the beginning we debated whether to bring in heavy skis or forego the chance to do some real skiing for the relative ease of cross-country skis and snowshoes.
The week before the trip found the stars aligning for skiing. The extended weekend forecast looked good, with daytime temps rising into the teens and partly cloudy skis. The last snow was 10 days ago, with high pressure dominating since then, resulting in (hopefully) relatively stable conditions. We decided to go for it.
We left Hanover Wednesday evening after a typically late start marred by forgotten gear and last minute details. We got a few hours of sleep along the way and around 10 AM Thursday morning found ourselves unloading the minibus at a remote snowy parking lot in northern main under brilliantly blue skis with the snowy summit of Katahdin towering almost 5000 vertical feet above us.
The gear explosion in the parking lot
The approach is a slog. There’s no other way to describe it. Due to our late start and large group size (10!) we broke it into two parts. The first night we skied in 12 miles to Roaring Brook. The terrain is pretty flat, a packed down snowmobile road (the park rangers use sleds to get into Chimney Pond and haul wood for the bunkhouse, so we didn’t have to break trail). With the combination of skins and a heavy sled, we didn’t get much glide, so you basically have to resign yourself to the slow pace of the day. Along the way there are some good views of the mountain to whet your appetite though…
Did we get further away from the mountain?
Kate wishes we were at Roaring Brook
The second day we headed up the last 3.3 miles to Chimney Pond. Gone were the beautiful blue skis of the day before, to be replaced by low clouds and a biting wind. At about 500 vertical feet below Chimney Pond we crossed the frozen Basin Pond, where we could see the mountain cloaked in a heavy blanket of clouds.
We did some beacon practice and set up camp after arriving at Chimney Pond, then began planning the next day. Two of our party decided to climb the Chimney, a WI2 gully climb topping out on the Knife Edge ridge below Pamola Peak. The rest of us decided to head up to try to bag the summit of Baxter Peak (Katahdin’s highest peak) via the standard Saddle route. Three of us decided to bring skis in the hopes that the Saddle gully would be stable enough to ski.
Our home for the next 3 days…
As luck would have it, the next morning dawned with a low overcast layer a few hundred feet above camp and gusty winds all around. We decided to head toward the ridge anyway, and make the go/no-go call as we got a better idea of upper mountain conditions. By the time we made it to the Saddle slide, we were in the cloud, with visibility down to a few hundred feet. The wind came whipping down the gully, but very little snow transport was occurring (presumably any loose snow had already been moved around with the last snowfall so long ago). We decided to continue upward.
Climbing the Saddle in a whiteout
We topped out on the ridgeline to impressively strong winds. The Saddle is a natural venturi catching the east-west trade winds that rake the mountain in the winter. At times the gusts made it hard to stand. Visibility was low, but we could just make out enough go cairn-to-cairn up the ridge. Fortunately, as we climbed out of the Saddle, the wind dropped off and we summated covered in rime ice but in relatively calm conditions. The three of us with skis put them on and began the descent. Conditions were generally bad for photography, so I didn’t get many pictures on the way down, but as we got lower off the ridge, the snow became nicely soft, yielding some good turns in the mellow terrain leading back to Chimney Pond.
Kate skiing the Saddle Brook back to Chimney Pond
Back at Chimney Pond, the sky briefly opened
Bringing skis to Katahdin was a bit of a gamble – with only a few days up there it’s easy to get shut down due to weather. It was fun to get to ski off the summit, but the bad visibility and wind kept the quality of skiing pretty low. The second day we woke up with the mercury hovering around -5 F under a cloudless sky. The upper mountain was coated in fresh rime from the previous day.
Noah smiling on the way up to the North Basin with the Knife Edge in the background
Noah and I headed over to the North Basin, where we had heard there was good skiing. The stories fell short of the panorama unfolding in front of us as we emerged from the krummholz. Although the snowpack was still a bit thin, there are lines everywhere. We picked a likely looking south-facing one, did a bit of snowpack reconnaissance, then started booting.
Noah skinning up into the North Basin
The scenery is pretty terrible…
And the lifts are pretty subpar
The snow was amazing. Stable, with just an inch of recent wind transport softening up the top that proved eminently rippable. It was that hero snow that you can’t help carrying some speed through, surrounded by scenery that makes you want to whoop with the sheer joy of it. It was fun.
Noah likes the soft snow
Noah approaches the choke with trepidation
Throughout the day we explored the Basin more, and added a lot of lines we didn’t have time to ski to the mental ticklist. In the afternoon some clouds started moving in, but our legs didn’t mind calling an early day as we headed back to Chimney Pond. Some of the others wanted to ski when we got back though, so we took a last sunset run down the saddle before trying in vain to cook up all of our extra food.
The sun sinks behind Hamlin Peak
This place is beautiful
Noah switching over on our last run
The slog out went faster than I expected and long before I was ready for it I found myself sinking into a minibus seat while the miles slipped by under the floor, carrying me back to civilization and school. Katahdin is an amazing mountain, with high barriers to entry from the long drive and long approach. It’s worth the price of admission though, for a backcountry experience that is truly unlike anything else I’ve done on the east coast.
Beginning the long trip out…
Read about the author: Ben